Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Who are they?

Mystery trio, Toronto 1995

ANOTHER CONTACT SHEET WITHOUT ANY DETAILS. A trio of men on a stage. Early 1995, shot for NOW magazine. That's all I know.

What I do know is that I meant this to be blurred; there are several frames in a row where I toyed with the focus, pulling it further out as I shot. If you want to know what it looked like in focus, here you go:

Mystery trio, Toronto 1995.

I'm sure you'll understand why I prefer the blurred version.

I had been shooting for NOW at least twice a week for several years by the time I took this, and the challenge to do something new was overwhelming. I was handing in diptychs and triptychs and collages, shooting parts of faces and bits of bodies - feet and torsos and hands. I was assigned restaurants and would hand in shots of chairs and place settings, pots and pans and rows of wine glasses. Even when I had to shoot people, I was trying to take them out of the photo. I was trying to tell myself something, but what?

My portraits were getting more indistinct - shot with razor-thin depth of field and printed through a binder of gauze and tissue and soft-focus filters to add in the blur and grain that excellent gear, modern film technology and my own painfully acquired skill were intent on taking away. I had gotten good and it had gotten boring and I wanted to bring back the joy of discovery and happy accidents that I remembered from my first years with a camera.

Ten years into my career I realized that a camera could be used to make images that didn't look like what we saw. I don't know what took me so long. I had discovered the Pictorialists by this point, but I also had a memory of Gerhard Richter's paintings at a big show of modern European art at the AGO, way back in high school, before I owned a camera or even knew I wanted one. I was startled that an artist would go through the effort of making a huge canvas look like the sort of accident you produce when you're checking your settings or blowing off a frame at the start of a roll. I was struck by the possibilities, and in my early thirties I was desperate for possibilities.


 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Lights

Jameson Avenue, Toronto, December 2001

I DON'T IMAGINE THERE'S ANYTHING MORE PURELY PHOTOGRAPHIC THAN SHOOTING LIGHTS. This was taken almost fifteen years ago, just a few blocks from our apartment, on a street in Parkdale that encourages a friendly competition between the residents of its less-than-luxurious apartments to put on a display of Christmas lights.

I was assigned to write a piece about the street for Toronto Life, and spent an evening there just after dusk with my Rolleiflex, some rolls of Ilford Delta 400 and a tripod. This shot didn't make the cut for technical reasons, but I've always liked it nonetheless for its wild patterns and an illusion of depth and even movement.

The American flag in the top left corner also reminds me that this was taken just a few months after 9/11, when emotions were ragged and there was still a lot of bruised empathy in the air. It seems like so long ago now.

Here's wishing everyone a safe and Happy Christmas.


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

London, Christmas 1997

Volvo Amazon, Hampstead, London 1997

SEVENTEEN YEARS AGO I FINALLY CROSSED AN OCEAN. An old friend was living in London with his girlfriend and wanted me to spend Christmas with them. I was 33 and single and desperate for something to knock me out of what seemed like a rut so I packed a bag and a camera and crossed the Atlantic for the first time.

My first few nights were spent experiencing something wholly new to me - jet lag. I'd sit up at night in my room in their top floor flat in Notting Hill and look over the rooftops toward the Westway and wonder: What next? My life had reached what seemed to me a crucial point; I was in my mid-thirties and single and watching my career contract perceptibly every year. I made enough money to get by but luxuries - like vacations - were beyond my means. I wouldn't even be in London if my friend hadn't paid for my ticket.

Most of all I felt terribly alone, but I had felt this way for long enough that it had begun to feel relatively normal, like a chronic illness that could be controlled but would never go away. I'd forget about it most of the time, but then came the days - like the ones where a slippage of time zones had deprived me of sleep - where it would pull me up short and make me feel unmoored and adrift.

Victoria & Albert Museum, London 1997

There was a whole new city to explore but for some reason - timidity, lack of funds, the immense gravitational pull of a pregnant woman close by - I stuck close to Elgin Crescent. We visited the Victoria & Albert and the British Museum (a Hogarth exhibition I was dying to see) and strolled around Soho and Knightsbridge. I made Christmas dinner - ham and turkey - which meant visiting London's superb butchers and fishmongers and living in the shadow of their impossibly high standards afterwards.

Even at the time I knew I was missing an opportunity. A quick trip on the Tube would have taken me to the Imperial War Museum or a walk around Whitehall or Greenwich or Oxford Street. I'd brought my last Spotmatic with me - the Pentax SV with the helpful lighting guide in surgical tape on the body - and sparingly shot my way through three or four rolls.

Highgate Cemetery, London 1997

One drizzly day Paul and I made a trip to Highgate Cemetery, one of the London sights I knew I wanted to see - and photograph. Shooting in Highgate is, frankly, a bit of a cheat; it's one of those places where you'll get a decent shot no matter where you point your lens - acres and acres of picturesque ruin that looks like a Hammer Pictures theme park.

Highgate Cemetery, London 1997

What I remember most is the weather during this mostly snowless holiday season. The vast variety and constancy of English rain is a cliche, but as soon as we left the Tube at Hampstead station I was struck by the dampness in the air - a kind of particulate fog that meant I had to wipe dry my camera lens every time I took a shot; it wasn't rain as much as a light fog with raindrops suspended in the cool, humid air. I wondered that the whole country wasn't thick with moss and mold.

Pierre and I smoke outside Waterloo Station. Photo by Paul Sarossy.

Just after Christmas our friend Pierre came over for a visit from Paris on the Eurostar. A plan to spend New Year's Eve in Paris came and went and we ended up ushering in 1998 in Notting Hill. Paul and Geraldine called it an early night so Pierre and I wandered the streets south toward Kensington and back again searching fruitlessly for a pub or a party. We burned through a pack of his cigarettes and mostly talked about our troubles with women.

Hampstead, London 1997

I came back with a few good photos and an overwhelming sense that things couldn't go on the way they were going. My life needed shaking up or else I'd end up everyone's hapless third wheel, a friend whose simmering life crisis made them an object of pity and, occasionally, a source of irritation.

I would meet the woman who became my wife two weeks later.


 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Winter

Caledon, Ont., Christmas Day, 1988

IT BEGAN SNOWING DURING ON THE WAY TO TERRA COTTA. We were driving to my sister's place in the country and it had been a green Christmas up till now. That would change quickly.

Holidays with my sister were a refuge. It was almost two years since mom had died, and we were still feeling bereft, so these Christmas retreats up in the woods were solace. My girlfriend would always fly to California to spend the holidays with her parents so I was happy to get away from the apartment and the city and feeling alone.

Caledon, Ont., Christmas Eve 1988

The snow started falling on the drive north from the city, dusting the fields outside Georgetown. I was still working at the record store, but I was just a few months from being fired from what would be my last retail job and begin working full time as a photographer. I took my camera everywhere I went, afraid to miss the chance at any shot that might help me build a reputation.

We'd just moved into the place in Parkdale - the loft with the hostile landlord and the thugs he'd hired as superintendents. Eventually I'd end up there alone, the girlfriend and the landlord long gone, and the heyday of my career as a photographer would happen in those three drafty rooms overlooking Queen Street. And all that time my trips north to Terra Cotta were the closest I'd ever get to a vacation from either Toronto or the anxiety of freelance work and bachelorhood.

The next day the show had dusted every tree up and down the road. I took the dogs for a walk and enjoyed that fantastic winter silence, broken only by our footsteps, the panting of the dogs, and the shutter of my Spotmatic.

Caledon, Ont., Christmas Day, 1988

 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Voivod

Voivod, Montreal Dec. 1989

SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO SPEND MONEY TO MAKE MONEY. Or at least that's what they say. Back in late 1989 I was as ambitious as I would ever be, and desperate to get clients in the United States. I still not-so-secretly planned to make the big move to New York City one day, to what was (and maybe still is - I wouldn't know anymore) the biggest market for editorial photography on the continent. My friend Chris had brokered an introduction to Edna Suarez, the photo editor at the Village Voice, and just after the film festival that year I'd sent portraits of Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki to her on spec.

Edna must have liked them, because a month or so later she called me with an assignment - one that began with the words "How hard would it be for you to get to Montreal?"

Voivod were a heavy metal band from Quebec who, by 1989, had evolved from a thrash band to a more progressive outfit. Their latest album, Nothingface, was a critic's favorite and the Voice was planning to run a feature on them in their annual Pazz & Jop Poll issue - a big deal in my circle of rock critic geek buddies. They needed a nice photo, though, and Edna thought I could just pop up to Montreal and take it for them.

If you're from around these parts, you know that Toronto to Montreal is an only slightly gruelling drive of a few hours, but I was a struggling freelancer, and a car would be overhead that would bleed my meagre profits dry. (I also didn't have a license. Still don't. That has to change.) I accepted the gig without hesitation, got the band's manager's number from Edna, and knowing that a plane would have put me in the red for months, called VIA Rail for timetables. (This is years before the internet, remember, and the train is still cheaper now, but only barely.)

The best deal was an overnight train, so I packed the equivalent of a studio - my ProFoto kit with three heads, light stands, my Nikon F3 and either the Mamiya C330 or a Rollei. It was a back-breaking amount of gear for one person to carry, but I got it on the train, tried my best to sleep in my coach class seat, and arrived in Montreal on a Saturday morning just after a snowstorm that had left ass-high drifts everywhere. I hauled my gear from the Gare Centrale upstairs to the dining room at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, ordered breakfast and waited for Voivod's manager.

Voivod, Montreal, Dec. 1989

I had a soft spot for Voivod. How could you not like a band that releases a record with a title like Rrröööaaarrr, and whose members went by the aliases Snake, Piggy, Blacky and Away? Before I'd finished breakfast their manager arrived, then helped me haul my gear through the snow to his car, and out to a massive rehearsal studio in an industrial park in the suburbs.

Most of the bands I knew rehearsed in damp basements or garages or dingy industrial spaces with dodgy power and worse security. Montreal and the province of Quebec, however, had decided to bankroll the conversion of a warehouse into a vast rehearsal complex, and I marveled as we walked down endless hallways where music pounded from behind closed doors and musicians loitered in the hallways or by coffee machines.

I met the band, who were amazed that a New York paper would send someone all the way from Toronto to take their picture, but also that I'd hauled so much gear there by train. I was grateful that I'd bothered, though, and intent on making a good impression, I didn't want to be hampered by lack of light or any other technical obstacle. I wanted to send Edna several good set-ups and show her that, even if I was marooned in Toronto, I'd go the extra mile to get a shot.

Snake, Piggy, Blacky and Away, Montreal, Dec. 1989

We worked for a couple of hours, the band trying not to get too bored, me at the edge of my technical competence. Even before I was finished I was sure that the shot just above, lit from overhead against a backdrop of egg crate sound insulation, was probably the best thing I'd get.

When I was done, we packed up my gear and headed off to a Ste. Hubert Chicken for lunch. I had a very "Anglo in Quebec" moment: I tried ordering in what remained of my high school French, and the waitress curtly answered me in English. I tried to make a joke with the band about how little French I'd learned after over a decade of mandatory French and official bilingualism.

"That's because you didn't try," Snake told me, sternly.

I wanted to make a crack about Quebec bands who record in English, but thought better of it. From the ass-high snow early in December to the vast government-funded band rehearsal complex to the jab at my Anglophone indifference, I was having a uniquely Quebec experience. In lieu of an easily definable Canadian national identity, moments like this would have to do.

The Voice used the shot, and I ended up getting more work from Edna, both at the Voice and later at the New York Times. I'd end up working for quite a few New York clients, but I never moved there, for reasons best examined in another post. By the time I'd paid for my train ticket, taxis to and from the train station, breakfast at the Queen Elizabeth, and film and processing, I don't think I made any money on the assignment. I don't think anyone has seen these photos in twenty-five years.

Voivod are still around, and released their 13th album, Target Earth, last year. Guitarist Denis "Piggy" D'Amour died of colon cancer in 2005.


  

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

White Zombie

White Zombie, Toronto, May 1988

THIS WAS THEM BEFORE THEY WERE FAMOUS. I'll be frank and say now that I had no idea that White Zombie would become as big as they did, even when - perhaps especially when - I was a big fan. And as far as I can tell the band was probably as surprised as I would be.

I heard of the band through my buddy Tim, who described them as a "metal Pussy Galore" - a comparison it was tempting to make since they shared a label and the cover of White Zombie's Soul Crusher was shot by the same photographer (Michael Lavine) who did PG's Right Now!. The comparison might have been a little facile but to be frank I was happy to find out there was a metal Pussy Galore.

Both bands were from New York, and both seemed to revel in pulling apart and defiantly reassembling their respective genres of music - metal and garage rock. The cool kids were all about semiotics at the time, so I guess you might have called it "deconstruction." Well, I didn't but I'm sure someone did.

White Zombie, Apocalypse Club, Toronto, May 1988

The band were playing the Apocalypse, the sort of amiable shithole of a club that you spend nights in for a couple of years and never miss when it inevitably closes. The Nerve had run Tim's review of Soul Crusher just a month before - a masterpiece of sorts that began with "As much as I admired Lester Bangs..." and ended with "EAT MY DUST, FUCK-FACE." When your friend commits thoughts like this to paper it's a kind of dare.

With the Nerve behind me and the help of Elliott Lefko, who booked almost everything worth seeing in Toronto in those days, I got the band to sit for a couple of rolls with my C330 and umbrella-bounced flash. I didn't know where I'd get the shots printed and I still don't know today - these photos haven't gotten past contact sheets since I shot them over twenty-five years ago.

White Zombie, Apocalypse Club, Toronto, May 1988

The club was hardly packed, and much as I might have enjoyed White Zombie's fantastically abrasive version of '70s metal, I'd never have pegged them for a stadium filler, which is probably why I ended up filing these photos unsold. In any case, this is the lineup just before the one that became famous; guitarist John Ricci would leave the band a year later, to be replaced by Jay Yuenger, who currently runs one of my favorite blogs. (CORRECTION: I'm told that this is actually Tom "Five" Guay and not John Ricci, who was only with the band for a few months.)

They were terribly nice. Rob, the lead singer, confirmed the rumour that he worked on Pee-Wee's Playhouse, and when I offered them the use of my couch and floor for the night, they politely demurred, saying they had a hotel. I left the show with a bit of a ringing in my ears and a really great t-shirt that I wish I still had today.

(UPDATE: Thanks for the link, J!)


  

Friday, December 12, 2014

Trimmings


I ALWAYS LOVED SEEING SHOTS LIKE THIS AT THE END OF ROLLS, which is why I always saved them. This isn't a trimming from the marble box but a 4x6 machine print of the first frame off a roll, date and location unknown.

It's easy to forget that photography really isn't about what you're shooting but how light is reflecting back at a lens, which would be my profound thought for today. I do know that every person holding a camera is an abstract artist waiting to happen.


 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Jon

Jon Spencer, Toronto, Sept. 21, 2004

I ENDED UP PHOTOGRAPHING JON SPENCER more than almost anyone who wasn't friend or family. This happened mostly because Jon and his band, Pussy Galore, made Right Now!, my favorite record of the '80s and still in my top ten today.

My good friend Tim Powis was the first person I knew to jump on the Pussy Galore bandwagon, and most of the staff at Nerve magazine rode it for at least a little while. (For what it's worth, Tim and I have never gotten off.)

The band were one of the few things my then-girlfriend and I could agree on, but then I know she fancied Jon more than she'd let on to me.

It's not hard for me to understand what I loved about Right Now!, even today. The '80s are remembered as a colourful and crass decade, where consumerism rallied after a decade-long lull, pop culture embraced slickness, and the first stirrings of what we called political correctness were making people a little less free than they should have been, especially in the endgame phase of a century-spanning struggle against totalitarianism.

Pussy Galore and Right Now! were, by contrast, ragged, reactionary and lo-fi; pallid, black-clad, foul-mouthed, pointedly offensive and animated by either cartoon morbidity or sullen horniness. I knew how I felt, and it was certain neither Wham nor Whitesnake represented my mood.

Pussy Galore, Toronto, 1988

I photographed the second (or third?) line-up of Pussy Galore when they swung through town touring in support of Right Now!, playing at the Silver Dollar - a former Vegas-style showbar that had just recently been a strip club. It was the perfect place to see the band, who were themselves more interested in going down to the bigger room downstairs to watch Schoolly D.

My friend Chris Buck also shot the band around this time, and I always thought my portrait of the group stood in the shadow of his shoot. I probably used my Nerve connection - and a friendship with Elliot Lefko, the promoter - to arrange a few minutes with the band, shooting them in a room behind the bar with my C330 and a flash bounced into an umbrella.

The result was a hard negative to print, in either the darkroom or Photoshop. I don't know that it's ever been published anywhere until now.

Pussy Galore, Apocalypse Club, Toronto, Aug. 1989

The band passed through Toronto again a year later with yet another lineup, Julie Cafritz having left the band and Neil Hagerty re-joining. It was the Dial M for Motherfucker tour, and I shot the band live for the first time in addition to a hasty portrait session in the dressing room.

Pussy Galore, Toronto, Aug. 1989

After the gig, my girlfriend suggested that the band stay at our loft in Parkdale if they didn't have a hotel. They accepted, and so began a tradition of Jon's bands crashing with me whenever they passed through town.

It was on this tour that I noticed that Jon, who had striven mightily to seem inarticulate and even monosyllabic when I met him the year before, was letting that facade slip and allowing the onetime Brown University semiotics student behind it all out for a roam.

My sole lingering memory of the band's stay at my place is Neil Hagerty staying up all night drinking beer and listening to old bebop records on headphones. We woke up the next day to find him slumped in the chair, headphones still on, a pile of empties on the floor. He'd drained every bottle and can in my fridge.

Once again, I don't know that anybody has ever seen these photos, which show more than a little bit of incipient grunge-era aesthetics happening.

Boss Hog, Apocalypse Club, Toronto, April 1990

Pussy Galore was pretty much defunct when Jon returned to town a year later with Boss Hog, the band led by his then-girlfriend and future wife, Christina Martinez. The Unsane were their support act - Boss Hog also used their rhythm section, drummer Charlie Ondras and bassist Pete Shore - and both bands stayed at my place. (The Unsane would stay with me again when they passed through town on their own not long afterwards. Charlie screwed a girl he picked up on my kitchen floor and she stole one of my towels.) 

I shot the show on assignment for NOW but for some reason I didn't try to talk the band into a portrait shoot. I regret that now, but I have always been intimidated by really good-looking women, and couldn't think of a way of broaching the subject with Christina. This is the first time I've printed any of these shots in almost 25 years.

Not long afterward we began hearing rumours that Jon had formed another band. I ran into someone who'd seen them in the States and he said that it was a trio, and that they basically just vamped on blues riffs while Jon shouted "blues explosion!" over the top. I thought that sounded great.

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Toronto, June 13, 1993

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion finally arrived in Toronto after releasing three records in rapid succession, with a fourth about to come out. They played the Opera House, a former cinema on the far side of the Don River, with the Muffs opening, and once again I offered the band a place to stay.

I asked Jon if we could do a photo session the next morning, and I suppose he said yes as a sort of payment for years of offering a place to stay and a relatively clean bathroom. I took the band and my Rolleis out to what was once Parkdale's train station, a weedy stretch of tracks near where Queen West met Dufferin and Gladstone. I shot the band out under a cloudless sky with a deep orange or maybe even red filter over the lens, then took them to the old stone stairs that once led from the street to the station and shot a couple of rolls of cross-processed Fujichrome 400.

I'd been working on a retro look to my work for some time by then, and I'm pleased to discover that my colour shots actually came close to aping the peculiar cast of old colour prints or fading Kodak slides. I'd have been pretty happy then - if I'd ever bothered making prints from this shoot. Once again, the first time these have ever been seen.

Jon Spencer, Toronto, Sept. 21, 2004

I would meet Jon and Christina again after that when Boss Hog and the Blues Explosion passed through town, but I didn't bother bringing a camera and they no longer needed a floor to crash on. It would be a decade before I trained a lens on Jon again, when I talked the free national daily into assigning a writer to interview him when he was passing through town promoting Damage. As the paper's photo editor, I assigned myself the shoot.

I told the writer that Jon and I went way back and that he'd know who I was, but long minutes passed in the hotel room before Jon finally did a triple take as I stood waiting with my camera and said "I know you, right?"

We caught up, and mostly talked about our kids. When the interview was over I sat Jon in a corner of the room where the sunlight seemed to skim the back of the wall and took what I think are the best shots I ever did of Jon Spencer. And this time they actually got published, but I had to be the photo editor to make that happen.


   

Monday, December 8, 2014

Abbie

Abbie Hoffman, Toronto, Sept. 1988

ABBIE HOFFMAN WAS IN HIDING, A FUGITIVE FROM THE LAW, or at least that was the last I'd heard of him. In fact he'd been out from underground for a few years now, and was in Toronto to help publicize Growing Up In America, a film about his generation of radicals, twenty years on from the high water mark of the '60s.

It was a news event as much as anything else, and while I don't remember having a client for the pictures, I pushed aside my dislike of shooting press conferences to take my place in the huddle of cameras. I'd finally invested in some telephoto lenses and was certain that I'd get something usable, even if I didn't have a clue where it would run.

Abbie Hoffman, Toronto, Sept. 1988

The Reagan years were nearly over and the end of the '80s was in sight, but the '60s still lingered, mostly because the people making the films were children of that period. It had been just five years since The Big Chill had been a festival hit, the Grateful Dead had an single in the charts just a year before, and the era's half life didn't seem to be waning.

Despite that, Hoffman was in a prickly, defensive mood for much of the press conference, and quite a few of my frames capture him with this snarling expression. For not the first time I couldn't help but wonder how people who talked so much about "peace and love" confronted the world with such poorly-concealed anger and even contempt.

Abbie Hoffman killed himself in April of 1989.

 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Rick

Rick Rubin, NYC, Oct. 1985

I MIGHT HAVE GONE TO NEW YORK CITY TO SEE A GIRL but I was an ambitious young man and boarded the plane with a list. I consulted with my rock critic friends from Nerve and hit the ground with some phone numbers and appointments meant to fill the days while she was at work and I was at liberty in the media capital of the world.

Rick Rubin was still a name only music geeks and serious hip hop fans knew in the fall of 1985. (And it has to be understood that the only hip hop fans then were serious ones.) Def Jam Records was known for singles like LL Cool J's "I Want You" and "It's Yours" by T La Rock and Jazzy Jay, but albums such as License To Ill and Reign in Blood wouldn't come out until 1986, so Rubin was mostly known as the kid who'd run a record label from his NYU dorm room.

Rubin had moved out of his dorm and into an office at 1133 Broadway when I turned up to interview and photograph him. The office was, frankly, only barely more professional looking than the dorm room, with a huge yoga poster on the wall and a big overstuffed floral couch that screamed "parental cast-off." While I waited, Rubin did business on the phone sunk back in the couch, so I snapped a few photos.

Rick Rubin, NYC, Oct. 1985

The real hip hop fans at Nerve were back in Toronto, so I tried to remember the questions they told me to ask him. Def Jam looked like a rickety bit of business on that October afternoon, but I didn't doubt for a second that this kid with his beard and Black Flag t-shirt was probably going to be a big deal. I just wish I'd had a better reason to talk to him.

The photos I took are nothing special. I wouldn't call them portraits by any standard I hold - then or now - and they only barely succeed as snapshots. If they're worth anything it's as a record of a moment with a person who would succeed beyond even his own wildest dreams - or at least that's my intuition - at a moment that's somewhat underdocumented for his fans. I just happened to be there.


   

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Franc

Franc Roddam, Toronto, Sept. 1988

FRANC RODDAM WAS AT THE FILM FESTIVAL WITH A NEW MOVIE, and I wish I'd cared about it when I took this portrait but to be frank (no pun intended) I only really cared about one film he'd directed, almost a decade previous. And even though I don't remember much - if anything - about this shoot, I'm pretty sure that during the whole five to ten minutes I might have been in the hotel room with him, I never told him how much I liked Quadrophenia.

I was a teenage mod. Well, only for about eight months, but that was enough time to get a parka and a pair of desert boots, see the Specials in an old ballroom on the lakeshore, and stand up with another mod friend after a matinee showing of Quadrophenia at the old Varsity theatres just after it was released and hear people mutter and tsk-tsk when they saw the Union Jacks on the backs of our German army surplus parkas.

"Didn't they learn anything from the movie?" I heard one woman exclaim to her friend.

My mod period was brief, preceded as it was by a punk period (long hair shorn away, Salvation Army clothes, pegged jeans, bowling shoes, buttons for bands like the Clash and Devo) and followed by a Teddy Boy/Zoot Suit phase that lasted through the remainder of high school, begun after I discovered rockabilly and the Benny Goodman small group records that got played in one Queen Street vintage shop I hung around.


I sold my parka to a friend in school and watched as an explosion of mods - on actual scooters! - showed up on the streets of Toronto. From what I hear some of them are still there.

It was more fun being the only mod at St. Mike's - definitely the only mod in Mount Dennis - and in any case I did learn from watching Roddam's film version of the Who's 1973 concept album that crowds made me wary and mobs were to be avoided. I liked the music and the clothes, to be sure, but British youth subcultures export very poorly, and Roddam's Quadrophenia taught me that dingy council houses, sunless skies and a bitterly conformist culture screwed down by class divisions was probably the sort of thing my grandparents were lucky to leave behind when they emigrated from Birkenhead and Lanarkshire.

Quadrophenia remains my favorite Who album if you don't count greatest hits packages like Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, but I've always found it irritating that Pete Townshend felt a need to use a ponderous, trumped-up pseudo-psychiatric term to describe Jimmy's very (to me) normal teenaged confusion and hormonal chaos.


What I loved about the film - and it too me years and several viewings to realize this - was the way it let Phil Daniels' Jimmy find a way out; as everyone involved with the film insists, that is him walking away from the wrecked scooter at the bottom of the cliffs at Beachy Head in the first shot of the film, finally letting go of the dubious comfort of the crowd. I still love Small Faces records and Ben Sherman polos today, but Roddam's film becomes a bit of a zombie movie as soon as Jimmy and his friends start chanting "We are the mods!' on the Brighton promenade.

I would have loved to talk to Roddam about all of this, but he was in Toronto to promote War Party, and in any case I'm sure he was tired of Quadrophenia even then, barely ten years after it came out. He's more relaxed about the cult status of his first feature film now, but then he's made all that money off of Masterchef, hasn't he?

A merely OK portrait, and a bitch to print thanks to seemingly embedded dust and a very messy grain structure in the shadows that required hours of spotting in Photoshop.


  

Friday, November 28, 2014

Bob

Bob Baker and Pinocchio
Bob Baker and friend, Toronto, Mar. 2009

I MET BOB BAKER ONCE, on a press junket promoting a DVD reissue of Pinocchio, the animated classic he'd worked on as a 12-year-old boy, showing Walt Disney's animators what a young boy looked like when he played with a marionette.

Baker was mad about puppets, and went on to work for George Pal, Edgar G. Ulmer and Roger Corman and the original Star Trek. He designed the spidery aliens that emerge from the mothership at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

He opened his own puppet theatre, Bob Baker Marionettes, in downtown L.A. in 1962. It was the oldest running theatre in Los Angeles, but with the lease running out next year, it's future was uncertain.

I wrote a story on Baker for my old blog after I was laid off by the free national daily. I also shot a short video of him, demonstrating the basics of working a marionette:


Bob Baker died on November 28, 2014


 

Who are they?


THIS MAN IS STANDING IN FRONT OF A PIECE OF HISTORY. Thanks to my increasingly minimal negative filing in the second decade of my photography career, that's about all I can tell you about this photo, apart from it being shot some time in the 1990s for NOW magazine.

The Funland pinball and video arcade is gone now, closed in the summer of 2008, its iconic sign removed from the dubious stretch of Yonge Street where it had stood for as long as I could remember. The man in question - a developer? an activist? head of the BIA? - posed for me up and down Yonge within a half block of the sign, and while I tried out a few locations over the course of the roll, this shot, which only catches a fraction of the sign, would have been enough to signify the place for anyone who grew up here.

Funland, like a lot of Yonge Street between Dundas and Bloor streets, was a tacky, low-rent place, only slightly more palatable than the peep shows and porn shops and a lot less beloved than Sam's, the venerable record store across the street from the arcade, which closed down one year before Funland. It had survived disapproving laws and the general distaste for Yonge Street's abiding appeal from the forces of public rectitude, but it wouldn't survive the hunger for redevelopment that long ago replaced Protestant moral righteousness as my hometown's spiritual fuel.

It's a serviceable bit of editorial work, as much a piece of illustration as portraiture, but I'll bet you that if you put five photographers on this stretch of Yonge with the same subject at the same time, four of them would have produced a shot like this.


  

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Mekons

The Mekons, Toronto, 1987

THE MEKONS WERE COMING TO TOWN AND I WAS EXCITED. If there was any band I wanted to photograph in 1987 it was this second wave punk band from Leeds, who had recently reincarnated themselves as one of the earliest purveyors of what would soon be called alt-country. Luckily I worked for Nerve - the only publication in the city that would consider a band like the Mekons to be a big deal - and my editor Dave told me to go ahead.

I wasn't the only Mekons fan at the paper. Phil Dellio - a truly talented writer whose taste I implicitly trusted - wanted to interview them, so we agreed to work together on the piece, with me doing photos and chipping in with questions.

I was only vaguely aware of their earlier music - a handful of singles and an album, and a reputation for being one of the most musically inept bands in a scene that never took much pride in musicianship. (They might have been inept, but they caught the attention of Lester Bangs, who called them "the most revolutionary group in the history of rock 'n' roll. They are also the finest artists ever to have graced this admittedly somewhat degenerate form with the grace of their aesthetic sensibilities, rarefied as a glimpse through a butterfly's wing.") Many years later I would finally hear tracks like "Where were you?" and the band ended up making a whole lot more sense.

The Mekons live, Lee's Palace, Toronto, 1987

But back then, on the albums being released by Sin Records in the UK - bought here on import at considerable cost - they were a discovery to me, a band comprised of adults, singing about what seemed to me very adult subjects, to a very rough approximation of country & western, a music that I always thought dealt with adult regret and the consequences of poor decisions. I was only 23, but I had an inkling that I might have already made a few decisions that would come back to bite me. The appeal of a band like this was irresistible.

(I forget who wrote that the title of Fear & Whiskey summed up all of country music in two words. Not strictly true, but a great line nonetheless.)

And so I showed up at Lee's Palace and found a spot at the foot of the fire escape in the back alley of the club, with my Mamiya C330 and a flash and umbrella on a stand - the most complicated technical setup I could handle at the time. I felt ambitious, and was desperate to get the best portrait of an avowedly leftist country punk band from the North I could manage.

I didn't get it, but I did learn a couple of things.

The Heroic: (l) Gang of Four, Leeds, late '70s (r) Chinese propaganda poster

My inspiration for the shot was simple enough: A vintage portrait of the Gang of Four - friends and peers of the Mekons from their early days in Leeds - and the communist propaganda posters that I was always certain served as the model for that photo. I explained this to the band; they knew the Gang of Four photo I was talking about, and understood what I was trying to accomplish. Some of them didn't seem jazzed about it; I think you can see that on Jon Langford's face.

Just a little earlier, when Phil and I were in a fast food restaurant just down the street from the club trying to interview the band, I said that I was pretty sure they probably didn't make their living from the Mekons, and asked what their day jobs were. I was fascinated by this sort of real-life detail, but they balked, protesting that it wasn't important.

"But aren't you socialists?" I asked them, trying to lighten the mood with a joke. "What about the dignity of labour?"

They grumbled and shrugged. One of them told us they did social work. Langford said he was a graphic artist. I'm pretty sure it was all downhill between me and the Mekons from that moment forward.


The Mekons still perform and record, and last year a documentary about the band was released. I have no doubt that they continue to describe themselves as socialists. I still think Fear & Whiskey is a great record.


   

Monday, November 24, 2014

Terra Cotta

Cheltenham Badlands, Caledon, Oct. 1988

IF YOU WANT TO SHOOT LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHS it helps to have access to a landscape. Sometime in the late '80s my sister and her husband moved north of the city to Caledon, a rural area full of farms and forest that was already developing a posh reputation. They scored a deal, though, with a run-down bungalow next to the Bruce Trail, at the elbow where two roads met, tucked into a little pocket of woods.

I'd bring a camera along on my visits and try to take shots of the trees and fields and wildlife we'd pass in their car. I was - and remain - a city kid, so nature in any form is a strange place, whatever form it takes. But I knew that landscape photography was a major genre and I wanted to see what I could produce now that I had landscapes in front of me.

Cheltenham Badlands, Caledon, Oct. 1988

Thankfully Caledon and its environs, pawed over by man for a few generations, had a few attractions that weren't merely pastoral. The Cheltenham Badlands aren't a natural feature - these rolling hillocks of red clay happened when someone cleared away the trees and brush, exposing the earth beneath to erode in the wind and rain. They became a tourist attraction and the backdrop for countless photographers, and I can't think of another place for a thousand miles that looks so lunar. (Or more specifically, Martian.)

The province would end up buying the land over a decade later, but in the '80s it was still the sort of place where you'd ditch your old Chevy (I'm thinking mid-'70s Nova, or Caprice) and set it on fire. The car is gone now, and there's talk of restricting access to the site to prevent all those feet from speeding up what some farmer started in the '30s.

Cheltenham Brickworks, Caledon, October 1988

It goes without saying that you'll find a brickworks wherever you'll find clay, and not far away from the badlands are the Cheltenham Brickworks, abandoned since the late '50s. Inside, with the machinery stripped down to just the massive iron gears and spindles, it seemed a lot older. I guess if you wanted to nitpick you'd call this "urban exploration" or "ruin porn" rather than landscape photography, which is fair - I'd take baby steps toward training my cameras on plants and birds and rocks and tree, and this was an appealing stop on the way.

I have never printed these photos until now. I'm rather surprised at how well they turned out, over twenty-five years later, and particularly enjoy the glimpse of the adjacent building through the window in the shot below - an echo of the castle on the hill glimpsed through arched windows in late medieval paintings. The Brickworks are completely closed up and inaccessible now, apparently, much to the frustration of younger photographers I know; sometimes it just pays to be old and in the right place first, I guess.

Cheltenham Brickworks, Caledon, October 1988


 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

House

 

CITIES ALWAYS CHANGE. If you don't enjoy this essential fact about urban life, you probably shouldn't live in one. They might get better or they might get worse - and your definition of "better" or "worse" might not be the same as mine, of course - but life in a city is never static. And more often than not each wave of change is heralded by heavy construction equipment.

I came home the other day to find a crew at work up the street, taking down a 200-year-old oak tree that was here before there was a street or even a city. It's a sad but majestic spectacle when one of these things goes down, so I took out my phone and tried to capture the moment. And yes, I know that sentence wouldn't make a bit of sense to me not so long ago.


Once it was down I tried to imagine what a skilled furniture maker could do with all of that beautiful wood. I'd heard that a lot of my neighbours were really unhappy about the tree going down, but it was in the middle of the lot, and I couldn't see how the new owner could do much without building into the tiny footprint of the existing house - one of the remaining shacks that were the first homes built in neighbourhoods like Earlscourt.


As for the house, I suppose you could have called it quaint. I took a photo of it two summers ago, when the last owner was probably still there, judging by the mowed lawn and the flowers in the window boxes on the porch. Tar paper over a wooden frame; it might have been good enough before Vimy Ridge or talkies or television, but in a city where home prices go up twenty or thirty per cent a year, it was a goner.

114 McRoberts Avenue, July, 2012

With the tree gone, on the morning of its last day, it looked cornered.


I'd gotten to know the new owner, who let me take a look inside while the excavator idled outside on the lawn, its huge steel bucket nosed into the earth next to the front door. You couldn't help but notice the details - the thesaurus/dictionary on the nearly empty shelf; the nearly full package of adult diapers on the couch.






It didn't smell very nice - the usual mix of cat piss, dirty clothes and sweat: Old man smells. The rooms were small and the floors were dirty, but it was hard not to feel sorry for the place when you read the numbers written on the tile by phone, next to last year's calendar. It was nasty, but it was someone's home, and they'd left so much of their last moments there that it made you imagine a hasty exit, distracted and involuntary.


The front lawn might have been torn up - a lost battle still half fought - but in the overgrown backyard you could still imagine the refuge this mean little house gave its owner. I don't know what happened to the old man who lived here, but when I took this picture the house had minutes to live.


Watching an excavator at work demolishing a house is truly remarkable, no matter what you might feel about the work at hand. The man at the controls began by taking tiny bites out of the roof, like a kid eating the white from the middle of a crusty roll. With the teeth of the bucket, he'd delicately pull off bits of siding and nudge roof beams away from the neighbour's wall, then with the enormous weight of the steel jaws, he began pulverizing the contents of the house, punching them into the basement.


There are strict by-laws about separating building debris, so the huge bucket would reach in and scoop out the fridge, the chest freezer, the sink and the flimsy frame of the plant shelf and the grow lights. As more of the house was pushed into the earth, the treads of the excavator would roll forward, till finally the last wall was knocked down, picked up again and tossed casually to the ground.


While I stood on the sidewalk watching the house go down a neighbour joined me, an older Italian gentleman who used to run the corner store down the block - now closed - for twenty years. He said there had been a family here once, a mother and a daughter and then finally a son living there alone. He had been a postman, but that was a long time ago.


Before the lunch hour was over the house was gone, pushed into the ground so that the excavator could get at the garage behind it. There was nothing left the next day but a few piles of cinder blocks, and the ghost of the house - a smudged outline on the wall of the house next door, open to the sun and air for a few brief weeks until a new house rises to cover up its last trace.